At the airport on Thursday, I was attracted by the bright orange cover of Fact fulness, a book I’d seen recommended by both Bill Gates and Barack Obama. So, with an hour before my flight, I bought it and spent the next few days consuming the contents.
Factfulness is by Hans Rosling, a Swedish doctor and researcher who got to be famous for most people through various TED Talks he did where he showed wonderful insights by presenting data better. This centres around economic and medical development, and how small absolute changes in income can make a huge difference when you have a small income to begin with.
Rosling focuses a lot on infant mortality statistics, as a good proxy for the overall health of a society. High infant mortality can imply poor literacy, poor hospitals, poor infrastructure of all kinds, and it was shocking to see that even now, a country like Saudi Arabia has a rate of almost 10%, but even more amazing to see that’s improved in a few decades from 25%.
This really got me thinking about the miracle of my own existence. As recent as the 1960s, infant mortality in the UK was still at least 2%, and if you couple that with the possibility that my grandfather, instead of being wounded in WWII and then spending the rest of the war in a POW camp, could have died in battle (or as a prisoner) or my grandmother could have been a few streets over and blown up by a doodlebug, or I could have choked to death when a wasp stung my tongue, or… Or my very long way back pig farming ancestor could have got killed because of his bigamous activities, and the whole Foreman line could never have got past the 16th century.
Gosling doesn’t just talk about infant mortality and the incredible strides we’ve made in the last few centuries, worldwide. He talks about the various misapprehensions about how Asia, or Africa, or Muslims, or some other stereotype du jour are intrinsically poor and feckless, and also many of the horrible mistakes and consequences he himself feels responsible for.
One might argue that human progress is not a straight line and so we shouldn’t talk about a country developing, but tell that to people when their children have a 25% chance of dying before their fifth birthday. So I won’t even attend to that here.
Lastly, the thing Rosling starts with is a quiz about how the world is: access to electricity, education and how much the population will grow. It’s fascinating to see how wrong one’s preconceptions are about how the world is, driven by hysterical media and geography lessons from 30 years ago. So in all, essential reading and so sad that Rosling died so early.